“Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA” is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.
My MFA program began with a validation. We gathered in Galileo Hall for Orientation and the program director, Marilyn Abildskov, welcomed us to Saint Mary’s College of California’s Creative Writing program right off the bat by saying, “The MFA is the public declaration of the writer’s life.” It was the first opportunity many of us had to see each other. I nodded, inspired. Looking around a room full of similarly inspired faces, faces imbued with similar curiosity and similar possibilities for living the writer’s life I wondered, “What does it mean to live a writer’s life anyway? Who are these fellow students, fellow writers, who I’ll be spending the next two years with? Who are they, and who am I?”
Questions of belonging and self-identity aren’t new. It was those questions that led me to apply to MFA programs to begin with. My personal statement ended with a quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In her memoir, A Dialogue on Love (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), she writes: “If I can fit the pieces of this self back together at all, I don’t want them to be the way they were. Not because I thought I could be better defended either: what I wanted was to be realer.” I also want to be realer, I stated.
As an undergraduate student at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan I started out knowing that I would study philosophy, literature and poetry writing—not Asian studies. That wasn’t my place. I was a Korean adoptee raised in a small Midwestern town where I could count the number of racial minorities on both hands. Cultural ties were shaky at best; resentful or embarrassing at worst, but my Korean face stood out on my college campus. It became the marker by which others defined me, and then, how I came to define myself. I went to Japan because I couldn’t get to Korea. I found revolutionary Asian American Studies. I devoured Asian American poetry. I learned what it meant to be Asian in Middle America. I realized that philosophy was not my place either, but I craved the self-knowledge involved in much of metaphysical and continental philosophy. By the time I left K, I wanted to know where my place was. Asian American studies? Literary theory? Creative writing? Some interdisciplinary approach to all three?
By returning to that existential question—who am I?—I knew the answer. I am an Asian American woman writer, but beneath the politics of racial identity, beneath the yearning for self-expression and self-creation, is simply a desire to be seen and known. Is that living the writer’s life? Of course, fundamentally, living a writer’s life is writing. I see this column as a step in the right direction. It’s a place for questions about literary writing forms, craft and how all of it interacts with my experiences at St. Mary’s. Personally, I still hope both this column and my MFA program will help make me realer. Maybe that is living a writer’s life.